In Praise of the Great Unknowns

Andrew Collins – The Observer
Sunday September 24, 2000

Here’s a trailer you didn’t see on TV last week: ‘Coming soon to Tuesday nights on BBC2, a major new, 10-part drama series, starring William Beck, Claudia Harrison, Poppy Miller and Iddo Goldberg.’ And yet Attachments really is a major new 10-part series for BBC2: the first dotcom drama. The series follows a bunch of dedicated twentysomethings working for an internet startup company and comes with its own factional website.

Attachments is a crucial plank in the channel’s autumn schedules and it’s arguably the most exciting new drama series to emerge this year. If all goes to plan it should be the first water cooler conversation-starter since Big Brother. But no one in their right mind would try to sell it on the names of the cast, who are all young unknowns – in some cases, fresh out of drama school. In refreshing contrast to every other ‘major new drama series’ on TV this year, Attachments has been trailed not on the pulling power of its stars but on the allure of, well, its drama.

That, and the fact that it comes from World Productions, the stable set up by TV drama potentate Tony Garnett. If push comes to shove, the hard sell on Attachments runs: ‘From the creator of This Life and The Cops.’ It’s significant that the ‘star’ of Attachments is the 65-year-old bloke who dreamt it up and developed it.

The interview-shy Garnett is a reluctant star. He carved his reputation in the Sixties and Seventies with Cathy Come Home, Kes and Law And Order. After a demoralising Eighties in Hollywood, during which he directed the feminist cop flop Handgun and produced Earth Girls Are Easy , he came home and got stuck into making realistic TV drama again, such as Between The Lines and Cardiac Arrest. When This Life achieved cult status in 1996, so did Garnett.

If producers are supposed to be faceless, then executive producers (Garnett’s title these days) should by rights be the hollow men of TV. But Garnett’s hard-won reputation as the small screen’s secret godfather comes partly from his success as a kingmaker. He does not cast stars in his dramas, he creates them. There was a huge fuss last week over a classified ad placed by director Roman Polanski for an unknown to star in his next film The Pianist, a $20 million concentration camp story. ‘Acting experience not essential,’ it ran.

Assuming Polanski finds the ‘sensitive, vulnerable and charismatic’ individual at the auditions on 30 September, this will be a big break indeed for some young hopeful. But being an unknown young actor, especially in this country, must be a miserable exis tence – made all the more frustrating by trailers for every ‘major new TV drama’.

As ITV and BBC become ever more like old-fashioned Hollywood studios, putting stars under contract for headline-grabbing seven-figure sums and then casting them in unsuitable projects, all the good work seems to go to the same relatively small handful of established TV faces. ITV now has its Famous Five: Sarah Lancashire, John Thaw, David Jason, Robson Green and Ross Kemp. The BBC has Nick Berry and Warren Clarke. Add to these contract players the ubiquitous Lorcan Cranitch, Iain Glen, Timothy Spall, Pam Ferris, Sue Johnston, Ricky Tomlinson, Pauline Quirke, John McArdle, Trevor Eve, Amanda Redman and Amanda Burton, and you’ve got most of current British TV drama covered.

A month ago, we saw Iain Glen in the final episode of BBC1’s Glasgow Kiss on the Tuesday and Iain Glen in the first episode of ITV’s Anchor Me the following Sunday. In the same week BBC1 scheduled a repeat of The Royle Family (starring Sue Johnston) directly after crime drama Waking The Dead (starring Sue Johnston). Now, Sue Johnston is a terrific actress, and can credibly transform herself from a criminal psychologist to a sofa-bound, chain-smoking cake shop assistant in the time it takes for BBC’s continuity announcer to hand over from one programme to the next – but such overexposure makes the suspension of disbelief that much trickier.

The danger of too many familiar faces in star-led drama is that the audience stops seeing the character and starts seeing the actor – a state of affairs that may please TV’s ratings-obsessed schedulers but which compromises an actor’s dramatic potential and homogenises his or her portfolio.

Of course, stars have always been the currency of Hollywood film studios, and the top ‘marquee names’ – Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford – command a commensurate degree of power as a result. American TV is not far behind, with the stars of big-hitters such as ER and Friends demanding ludicrous per-episode sums. Why? Because they can. The new wave of British TV stars such as Lancashire and Kemp may now be able to negotiate £1.3m apiece, but this money is spread across two years and many contractual hours of television. For ITV to get its money’s worth it has to guarantee coverage of its new signing, and for Lancashire and Kemp to feel stretched as actors they will want to try on a variety of different hats.

The comparison between TV and films breaks down on the question of sheer airtime. Last year, Harrison Ford was an internal affairs cop in Random Hearts. This year he’s a brilliant research scientist in What Lies Beneath . If the truth be told, he’s Harrison Ford in both films, but at least audiences had 12 months to forget he was a cop. British TV audiences had just five days to acclimatise from sports reporter to architect with Iain Glen.  Ford brings us to Star Wars. Still one of the world’s favourite films, it’s easy to forget that it was a cinematic This Life in 1977 – a major new drama with a cast of unknowns. (It was even a series, although nobody knew it.) Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were, in minor roles, the film’s token ‘names’, though hardly much of a pull in the States. Lead actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were virtual nobodies at the time, but Star Wars was sold as a story, as an experience, and of course it made icons of everyone involved. True, the low-profile casting occurred mostly because George Lucas used up his budget on models and wires, but the dramatic effect was the same as when we first ‘met’ Egg, Millie, Miles, Warren, Rachel and Anna on This Life in 1996. Thanks to Garnett’s tradition of casting the untried and unknown, the viewer is forced to engage with the characters.

It should be noted that by the time of Phantom Menace, Lucas had succumbed to the dark side of star power, casting Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson – two of whom then whinged about acting against blue screens. You don’t catch unknowns doing that.

If British TV drama continues to operate on Phantom Menace lines, rather than Star Wars, then Tony Garnett’s enthusiasm and commitment to young, untried acting talent becomes ever more important. (His ethos extends to writers too – neither Cardiac Arrest creator John MacUre nor This Life’s Amy Jenkins had any TV ‘form’ before Garnett nurtured them, and the two series of This Life became a virtual training camp for young directors.)

Attachments, set in the dramatically unpromising offices of a lifestyle website, may begin with a naked man on a skateboard, followed by a lithe couple shagging, but once the attention-grabbing is over, it quickly settles into the This Life/Cops groove: fluid camera, naturalistic acting, lots of sitting around swearing, and that illusion of a docusoap. Very little happens, until something important does, and that’s its magic. It seems that TV drama has come full circle since Cathy Come Home. We should be thankful for that.

Last week, as if to neatly galvanise the Garnett Effect, BBC2 ran a two-part special of The Cops. It is not overstating the case to say it ranks as some of the finest drama shown on any channel all year – which, admittedly, is not saying a lot set against the likes of Waking The Dead, Anchor Me and Badger. But it seems you have to take your gripping homegrown TV drama where you can get it in the 21st century, whether it’s a genuine triumph like Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off, repeats of This Life and Prime Suspect, Ethel’s death on EastEnders or even the dinner-table confrontation ‘episode’ of Big Brother.

Unless an asteroid hits, many of the previously unknown cast of The Cops will be as deservingly famous as This Life ‘s Jack Davenport and Daniela Nardini this time next year. Maybe in three years they’ll be signed to ITV for £1.3m, we’ll all be sick of the sight of them and… ‘coming soon to Tuesday nights – a major new, 10-part drama series starring John Henshaw, Clare McGlinn and Parvez Qadir’.